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British health secretary defends decision on coronavirus lockdown

British health secretary defends decision on coronavirus lockdown

dpa
London
Matt Hancock has said he was aware at the start of the pandemic that 820,000 people could die from COVID-19 but that ordering an earlier lockdown would have meant going against scientific advice.
The health secretary was being questioned over allegations made by the prime minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, to the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee.
Hancock told MPs he had “no idea” why Cummings had a dispute with him, but had later become aware that he had wanted him fired.
Asked why the government had missed for six to eight weeks early in 2020 the signs that the death toll could be large, the Cabinet minister said: “Well, I would absolutely say that we knew about this problem from the start. And the challenge in those early weeks of March was making a massive judgment - probably the most significant judgment that any Prime Minister has made in, certainly in peacetime, based on incomplete information, and a great pace.” He said he instructed the Department of Health and the NHS to “plan on the basis of a reasonable worst-case scenario” in January 2020, signed off at Cobra on January 31, for 820,000 deaths.
He said he was “determined that that would not happen on my watch” and “so throughout February, we were planning for how to stop that, and how to deal with the consequences if it came true.”
He said that by March 3 there had been no deaths and just 50 confirmed cases, but by the week beginning March 9 the “data started to follow the reasonable worst-case scenario”, and by the end of the week the projected numbers “were on a scale that was unconscionable.”
Asked why he and others had not seen the enormity of what was coming, Hancock said: “The clear scientific advice at the time was that there was a need to have these tools like lockdown at your disposal but also that the consequences and the costs of lockdown start immediately and, critically, the clear advice at the time was that there’s only a limited period that people would put up with it, would put up with lockdown.”
“Now that proved actually to be wrong.”
Hancock insisted he had scrutinised the advice but “ultimately we didn’t know how long people would put up with it and now it seems obvious that people will put up with lockdowns - it was not at all obvious. These are huge decisions; to take those decisions against the scientific advice is an even bigger decision to take.” He said “challenging the scientific advice is one thing, but overruling a scientific consensus is much harder, especially when the costs of the lockdown are immediate and are obvious.”
Earlier, the health secretary denied lying to Boris Johnson at any point during the pandemic, telling MPs he has always been driven by an approach of “honesty and integrity.” Asked by Science Committee chairman Greg Clark if he ever said anything to the prime minister that he knew to be untrue, Hancock replied: “No.” He struck back at Cummings, saying that the government “has operated better in the past six months” since the controversial aide left Downing Street.

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